North Korea: Not Nerve Gas Again!

I'm no fan of North Korea, but the news media in America need to do better if they're to avoid becoming just as discreditable.

The May 15, 2017 Fox News article "UN Agency Helps North Korea with Patent Application for Banned Nerve Gas Chemical" is a case in point.

The World Intellectual Property Organization probably has been assisting a North Korean patent application for sodium cyanide, as the article states.  And cyanide is a precursor used to manufacture the nerve agent Tabun.

After that, however, it's just down the rabbit hole.

The chemical structures, below, say it all.

The organophosophorus moiety is center of nerve agents.  This is the acetyl cholinesterase inhibiting group, which disrupts nerve function.

The R3 group in Tabun is cyanide "CN."

The R3 group in Sarin, Cyclosarin and Soman is fluorine "F."

In the VX type, R3 is the larger sulfur-nitrogen group.  

These R3 groups are responsible for most of the differences in volatility and lethality, although the R1 and R2 groups also contribute.

Tabun is the only nerve agent that requires cyanide, and Tabun is not a good candidate for manufacture.  Sarin and VX are superior agents.  They're more lethal and no more difficult to manufacture, and they fulfill the requirements for a volatile offensive agent (sarin) or a persistent defensive agent (VX).  Tabun and Soman are in between.  They are simply inferior analogs discovered during the research.

Sodium cyanide is produced in Western countries via treating hydrogen cyanide with sodium hydroxide.

Hydrogen cyanide is produced via the Andrussow process via combining methane(CH4) and ammonia (NH3) and oxygen at elevated temperature, requiring a platinum catalyst.

Ammonia is obtained via the Haber Process, a high-temperature, high-pressure process requiring an expensive, sophisticated plant that condenses atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia.

The North Korean sodium cyanide process apparently uses urea, , for the nitrogen source and combines it with sodium carbonate (washing soda), which is probably more readily available than the sodium hydroxide we currently use as the alkali.

If that's what they've done, it's pretty clever, especially for countries that do not have a Haber plant to produce ammonia.  Urea can be obtained from urine.  It would definitely be "green."

Why make sodium cyanide?

U.S. demand was 1.6 billion pounds in 2000, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.  It finds its way into welding gasses, metal cleaning, ore refining, herbicides, optical brighteners, dyestuffs, and synthetic rubber, among other products.  Hydrogen cyanide is used to manufacture nylon, acrylates, sodium cyanide, and chelating agents, among other things.

Yes, hydrogen cyanide has been used in execution chambers and as a chemical weapon during World War I.  As a chemical weapon, it was disappointing, because it is lighter than air.  The gas rises before an effective concentration can ever be achieved on the ground.  The gas chamber confines the gas, and its lower density renders it easier to evacuate than a gas that sinks to the ground.  Reports of hydrogen cyanide use on battlefields surface every so often.  From a technical view, they are highly suspicious.

This is the sort of hysteria poison war gas usually produces, and it's a dangerous thing.  It sufficed as a casus belli for Bush's disastrous invasion of Iraq.  Belligerents accuse each other of just about anything to arouse hate – a will to war, as Clausewitz put it.

Just my opinion, but if North Korea really did intend to manufacture Tabun, it's doubtful they'd have applied to the U.N. to patent the process or any part of it.

Theft of intellectual property is one of our complaints with China among other countries, but here we are, penalizing North Korea for possibly the most compliant thing it's ever done.

There are certainly reasons for nations to go to war.  But there are a lot more reasons not to.  Fabricating reasons is one of the most reprehensible things any nation, its leaders, and its journalists can do.

There's a cabal in Washington, D.C. that really doesn't need much of a reason to war and media that pounce on every sensation.  This is what gets us into unintended consequences.  Then we come up with a mystical "formula of national self-interest" as though it were some novel revelation.

Clausewitz wrote a century ago that war is politics by other means.  So what is the political outcome of disarming one's enemy?  North Koreans aren't going to like us because we disarmed their military.

Anti-partisan warfare is something no conventional army has ever been any good at, not without resorting to the harshest methods.  The propensity for this sort of warfare is greater now than it's ever been.

If we cannot answer the question of political objectives, with a view to avoiding partisan war or other complications, then we are not ready to go to war.

Articles like this demonstrate how easy it is to lose prudence and lunge into things we wind up regretting.

They also demonstrate how inept world regulatory bodies are.  Sarin: phosphorous, carbon, oxygen, fluorine.  All have commercial uses.  You could easily have them all in your house.  If you knew what to do with them, you could make sarin.  Patent a better mousetrap with the U.N., though, and you may wind up a war criminal.

The will is the larger part of it all, and the will is ours, not some regulatory agency's, the media's, or the government's.

Clausewitz: "No one starts a war – or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so – without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it."  

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